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We need a new approach to teaching modern Chinese history: we have lazily repeated false narratives for too long

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  1. skybrian
    From the article: [...] [...] [...]

    From the article:

    Consider this sentence about the eighteenth century: “The High Qing period was a time of peace and social order, material splendor, cultural refinement, technological progress, and continued territorial expansion” (pp. 55–58). Most of the items in this list are true, and encapsulate the more positive view of the Qing which has emerged since its archives were first opened to researchers in the 1980s. But note the glaring contradiction: How could the High Qing be both a “time of peace” and one of “continued territorial expansion”? That a scholar could write such a thing displays something else: an apologetics for or simply neglect of Qing and PRC imperialism that infects, or has infected, most China scholars inside and outside of China (myself included).

    Many China historians writing in English employ a euphemistic vocabulary that obscures the fact that the Qing empire and PRC state after it were built by military force or the threat thereof. In territories newly acquired by the Qing, Han settler colonialism followed wherever farming was environmentally feasible (and sometimes where it was not), a pattern repeated under the PRC. Referring to these territories, historians often use the word “unification” (54) instead of “conquest,” and speak of “reunification” of places that were never previously part of the state wanting to “reunify” it (539). Mühlhahn even slips and refers to the “recapture of Taiwan in 1683” (87), though no China-based state — not even an imperial dynasty — had ever ruled the island before. I am guilty of similar euphemism: in 1996 I suggested the field adopt “frontier studies” as a rubric to study newly-conquered Qing imperial territories around the periphery of Ming China. In suggesting “frontiers” and avoiding such terms as “colony,” I was adopting the outlook and the vocabulary of a research center in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with which I had collaborated.


    The falsehoods of the “tribute system” model infiltrate the maps in Making China Modern, which appallingly label Kazakhstan, Nepal, Bhutan, all of mainland Southeast Asia and Korea as “Chinese vassals” (102–103). This is worse than DreamWorks promoting China’s false claims on Southeast Asian seas by sneaking an Asia map into its film Abomidable that shows the PRC “nine-dash line” claiming most of the South China Sea.


    The role of Chinese classical culture in East Asia is in fact strikingly reminiscent of the Greco-Roman linguistic and cultural tradition in the Mediterranean and Europe, and of the Arabic- and Persian-language Islamic tradition of much of Asia and north Africa. Thus, just as we discuss the commonalities of Christendom and the Islamicate, which linked cultures over space and time in the absence of continuous political unity, we might similarly talk about a Sinicate, or Chinese cultural ecumene, rather than an uninterrupted unitary “China.”


    [A] new paradigm for modern Chinese history would recognize that the PRC came to power by acquiring (not “inheriting”) the bulk of the ethnically diverse Qing empire. Qing included, but was not confined to, the peoples and territories formerly under Ming rule. Though Qing imperial discourse and institutions owed much to Chinese culture and the Ming, it was not limited to these but included Inner Asian elements as well. Writers should not use “Qing” and “China” interchangeably (as Mülhhahn and many others do) any more than we would use “Ottoman” as a synonym for “Turkey.” And if written at all, the term “Qing China” would mean not the whole empire, but rather the ethnographically Chinese former Ming territories that Qing incorporated, in distinction from Qing Inner Asia or Qing Taiwan.

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